Why did the Egyptians painted like that?

•September 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment
Fresco found in the tomb of Nakht (detail)

Fresco found in the tomb of Nakht (detail)

Inspired by E.H. Gombrich

Egyptian painting challenges us to understand two things. The first thing has to do with their style of painting, while the second, to its survival.

Regarding the style, we must first understand that the scenes depicted in an Egyptian painting shows us a world, a time completely alien to ours. Many times we find ourselves baffled by Egyptian art. Put aside the surreal representations of gods or mythical scenes. Take a lot at the representations of scenes of everyday life, with human beings: the figures, extremely simplified in impossible positions, are striking as the arbitrary and capricious elements that complete their compositions.

But even more curious is the fact that this style of painting has survived, with minor variations, for over 2000 years. Remember that European painting in just 700 years went through countless artistic movements. Although the comparison is not valid because those are two completely different historical periods, we can say that definitely Egyptian painting remained unchanged because it fulfilled its purpose.

Why then the Egyptians painted like that?

The Egyptians wanted its painting show exactly what they wanted to represent, in a clear, obvious fashion. A good painting for them was a painting in which the observer could understand exactly what was going on. There was no room for ambiguity or interpretation. The main objective was to be understandable to everyone. Consider, for example, traffic signs: represent what they mean in the simplest possible way. It is for this reason that, like the traffic signs, Egyptian painting is flat and two-dimensional. Although in the future, the three-dimensionality, depth and perspective will show an “evolution” in the representation of reality, this complexity was contrary to the Egyptian artistic intention. And for this reason their style remained unchanged for so long.

Note, for example, the painting attached to this post. It is one detail of the many frescoes found in a tomb near Luxor that belonged to an Egyptian official called Nakht. Let’s look at it in detail. We will see that Nakht and his wife are making an offering to a god. In the left half, the characters are placed one behind the other. In the right half, the elements constituting the offering: in the upper area we can identify vessels, eggs, poultry, vegetables and other items. In the area below, we can see different cuts of meat and the remains of a cow or ox.

Each element of the painting is represented clearly. Here neither depth nor perspective play any role. Not even the physical laws, such as gravity, do. It is even very easy to identify each of the foods offered to this god. This fresco, rather than a representation of reality, seems to be a pictorial description.

The figures, as we mentioned, may look strange. The heads looking to the side, the torsos to the front, and the legs also to the side: no human being can adopt this position. But this way of painting is not random. From the Egyptian perspective, the heads are more identifiable if shown sideways, while the torsos and eyes are more identifiable to the front. The torsos to the front allowed them to show how the arms and legs were attached to the body. There is even a curious detail: if you look at Nakht’s feet, they appear to be both left feet. This shows that the Egyptians thought that, if they draw the big toes towards us, the feet would be clearer, whatever that means. By observing other Egyptian paintings, you can see that, depending on where the character is facing,  it may have both right or left feet, but always with the big toe facing the viewer.

Egyptian artists were artisans were considered a little more valuable than construction workers and, therefore, the idea of expressing their subjectivity into their art was absolutely foreign to them. In fact, the artists had to memorize all the resources described above before being commended with a painting. With this knowledge, they only had to replicate the exact same rules in each of their paintings, and the job was done.

This is the logic behind a style of painting that, whether we like it or not, has survived for millennia. And in doing so, it has fulfilled another of its purposes: to be eternal.

Article originally published in CRAC Magazine

American Gothic | Grant Wood – Amy Schumer and JK Simmons

•August 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment
American Gothic | Grant Wood - Amy Schumer and JK Simmons

American Gothic | Grant Wood – Amy Schumer and JK Simmons

The battle of Alexander at Issus | Albrecht Altdorfer | 1529

•July 4, 2013 • 157 Comments
The battle of Alexander at Issus | Albrecht Altdorfer | 1529

The battle of Alexander at Issus | Albrecht Altdorfer | 1529

After traveling through the Alps in southern Germany, Altdorfer was so impressed by their beauty that he became the first painter of landscapes in the sense we know them. With other artists, they became known as the Danube School. They found their inspiration in biblical and historical motifs.

In 1528, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria commissioned Altdorfer with a series of historical paintings to hang in his home in Munich. The battle of Alexander at Issus shows the battle of Alexander the Great against the troops of the Persian Empire under the command of their king, Darius III, in 333 BC. The battle culminates in the victory of Alexander and prevents Muslims to conquer the west.  The reason for the choice of this battle is significant because, during the time of Altdorfer, the Ottoman Empire also moved westward and several wars were fought in eastern and central Europe. In 1529, the ottomans sieged Vienna in their greatest advance in Europe, but they were eventually defeated.

With this painting, Altdorfer’s only intention is to show us the heroic achievement of the army of Alexander the Great against the foreign barbarians, and therefore he does not mind using symbols, anachronisms and, even, wrong information. The battle of Alexander at Issus is not the accurate portrayal of a historical event, it is an allegory.

In the foreground, we can look at the battle between the two armies. Alexander’s army is wearing steel armor, while the Persian army only wears red robes and turbans. In the center, we find Darius III in a chariot pulled by three horses while Alexander chases him with a spear.

The armies are situated in a dreamlike scenario. The sun, representing the West, comes from behind the mountains while a moon, representing the Muslims, fades and hides in the upper left corner of the painting. The mountain and the town behind the battle are fictional and, behind them, we find the island of Cyprus and the River Nile, geographical accidents that are impossible to see in the same picture.

The sign at the top reads: “Alexander the Great defeating the last Darius, after 100,000 infantry and more than 10,000 cavalrymen had been killed amongst the ranks of the Persians. Whilst King Darius was able to flee with no more than 1,000 horsemen, his mother, wife, and children were taken prisoner. “

The proposition / The rejected offer | Judith Leyster | 1631

•June 27, 2013 • 4 Comments
The proposition / The rejected offer | Judith Leyster | 1631

The proposition / The rejected offer | Judith Leyster | 1631

Judith Leyster developed his work during the Dutch Golden Age. She was focused on genre portraits and, among his characters, we find musicians and card players. The artist completed 35 paintings before getting married and, subsequently, quitting painting.

The proposition, also known as The rejected offer, is one of her most enigmatic paintings. We see two characters. A woman sews a fabric, sitting by a desk with a lamp. To her right, a man leans over and offers her money in coins.

The question we face when we look at the painting is to know what it means. The interpretation of The proposition was the subject of harsh debate between generations of art critics. On one hand, we have the classical position, which claims that the woman is a prostitute and the man to her side wants to hire her services. In favor of this view, it is claimed that the verb “to sew” in Dutch (“naaien”) is also used to refer to intercourse.

The other position says that the woman does not show herself suggestive or provocative and, therefore, can hardly be considered a sex worker. She dresses like a regular housewife, revealing only her face and hands. Feminists who proposed this interpretation, claim that the offering of money was an acceptable practice of courting at the time and that previous art critics, all men, missed the point of the painting.

Anyway, this is an excellent painting that combines the realism of seventeenth-century Dutch artists with the typical lighting of tenebrists such as Georges de la Tour.

The Angelus | Jean-François Millet | 1859

•May 31, 2013 • 109 Comments
The Angelus | Jean-François Millet | 1859

The Angelus | Jean-François Millet | 1859

As I have introduced the author of this work in another post, I’m not going to do it on this one. I’m just going to perform an analysis of another of Millet’s paintings: The Angelus.

As we stressed earlier, Millet grew up on a farm, which motivated him to portray rural landscapes and its characters. The artist was particularly sensitive to the hardships and sufferings of rural workers and, therefore, he dignified them in his paintings.

In The Angelus, the artist shows us a couple of potato harvesters who bow with respect to pray amid a quiet rural landscape. In the foreground, we find the characters that have left their work tools to the side and, in the background, we can see the silhouette of a church. According to Millet himself, the inspiration for the work came from a memory of his childhood: when he and the members of his family worked on the fields, each time they heard the bells of the church, their grandmother made them to take a rest to pray the Angelus.

But although the painting seems only to show us a pleasant landscape, it provoked different reactions. At first, it was perceived with a political intention and they accused Millet of being a socialist because of his solidarity with the workers. Others claimed that the work had a religious meaning, but Millet did not frequent the church and neither he was interested in religion, so that could hardly have been the meaning of the work.

The Angelus | Salvador Dalí | 1935

The Angelus | Salvador Dalí | 1935

Years later, Salvador Dalí, after seeing the painting for the first time, will decide to become an artist. The Spanish, obsessed by its magnetism, held one theory that nobody had thought of: that the couple was burying a dead son and that, therefore, the painting showed a funeral scene. He insisted so strongly on this that the Louvre finally agreed to perform tests to the painting. After an x-ray analysis to fabric, under the final coat of paint, they found a figure that resembled a small coffin, confirming the Dalí’s theory. At the end, he was a clown, but he knew exactly what he was talking about.

Probably, Millet has considered that the topic could cause a lot of rejection and therefore decided to cover the coffin with the basket of potatoes we see between the couple.

The flowered dress | Édouard Vuillard | 1891

•May 17, 2013 • 5 Comments
The flowered dress | Édouard Vuillard | 1891

The flowered dress | Édouard Vuillard | 1891

Vuillard had a close relationship with his mother, a dressmaker in Paris. Her profession made ​​the young Édouard to be surrounded by textures and colors, which will be the future motifs of his paintings.

After the death of his father in 1884, Vuillard received a scholarship to study at the exclusive Lyceé Condorcet, but along with Ker Xavier Roussel, they left the Lyceé to study art in Diogène Maillart’ studio.

In 1890, Vuillard met Pierre Bonnard and joined the group called Les Nabis, “the prophets.” This movement brought together a group of artists who, influenced by Gauguin’s use of color, sought a more emotional and subjective art than the one from the Impressionists.

Vuillard’s paintings are recognized by their interior scenes. Many times, he shows us his home. In several of these paintings, he portraits his mother, with whom he lived until the age of 60. Vuillard’s paintings are intimate, almost autobiographical. In The flowered dress, we see the inside of one of the rooms of his house with his mother standing examining a fabric. Apparently, the scene shows a group of employees working in dressmaking. The mother stands out from the other characters by the pattern of her dress and by the fact that Vuillard illuminates her excessively compared to the rest of the characters, which remain obscure and anonymous.

The seven deadly sins | Otto Dix | 1933

•May 9, 2013 • 3 Comments
The seven deadly sins | Otto Dix | 1933

The seven deadly sins | Otto Dix | 1933

Otto Dix was born in Germany and began painting with his cousin. As a teenager, he joined the army to fight for his country in the First World War. After three years, he was discharged and awarded with an Iron Cross for bravery. His experiences in the front will influence the artist to paint the horrors of war.

From the moment he leaves the army, Dix begins to meet other painters and, over a period, he joins several artistic movements. He got close to the Expressionists, to the members of the Dresden Secession, to the Berlin Secession and, finally, in 1925, he joins the group of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity, which will be associated forever with the name of the artist.

The term New Objectivity, like American positivism, implied a practical, pragmatic relationship with the world. That is why they rejected the subjectivity and romanticism of expressionism. The New Objectivity movement was deeply critical of society: in those times of financial and political instability, where the gap between rich and poor increased; Dix will portrait the reality behind the curtain: the prostitutes, the unemployed and veterans of war.

But everything changed when Nazis seized power in 1933. Like many others, Dix was listed as a degenerate artist and many of his works were burned. He was also forced to join the Reich’s Chamber for Fine Arts, promising that he will only paint inoffensive landscapes. He did not.

In this period, Dix produced canvases that disguised critics to the Nazi ideals . The seven deadly sins is one of them. Here, the artist uses a medieval allegory to portrait the seven deadly sins of the Catholic tradition with the magic-realist style typical of the New Objectivity.

In the foreground, Envy, symbolized by a child wearing a mask, rides Greed, who takes the form of an old woman holding a bag of money. As you can imagine, the characteristic mustache of the Führer on the mask of the child was added after the war, when there was no danger of retaliation. Behind them appears Sloth, a person dressed as a skeleton with the heart removed, representing Death. The position of the members of this figure resembles the swastika. With this symbol, Dix criticized German society that allowed the rise of Hitler to power with its silence and conformity. Behind and to the left we see Lust, dancing and trying to breast-feed Death. To its right, Wrath is shown as a horned demon. Behind  the scythe, we see the head of Pride, which has an anus for mouth. And finally, Gluttony, on the far right corner of the painting, is symbolized by a figure with a pot on his head that holds two symbols: in its right hand, the symbol of infinity and, in his left, a rod with the symbol of the Christian fish.


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